Spring practice starts April 1st.
All the optimism and all the waiting gets rewarded with the first glimpse at a new team. In various polls and forecasts, the Ducks are in college football's Top Five, with an excellent chance of making the first year of the four-team playoff. Vegas oddsmakers rate the team as one of the favorites for the national title.
The hard lesson of last year is that hype and reputation don't matter. To succeed a team has to focus on getting the job done every single day, work harder than every opponent, one opponent at a time. Truisms of sport endure because they are true. There can't be any Arizonas on this year's schedule. If Marcus Mariota, Hroniss Grasu and Ifo Ekpre-Olomu want to achieve the kind of season they came back for, the Ducks have to commit to 8 grinding months of doing the right thing and preparing in the right way and never losing sight of their goals. They know that better than anyone.
Spring practice is important because it sets the standard and the tone for the year. Erik Chinander told Andrew Greif of the Oregonian:
“Really, Azz taught me about getting the most out of guys and creating the culture in the meeting room that you need and that taught me this business is about teaching,” Chinander says. “You might be different from me but we need to find a way to teach these kids what we want them to do.”
These are the five priorities of spring, evidence of which we'll be looking to see in the spring game on May 3rd:
1. An improvement in discipline, effort and organization in practice
Tony Washington pointedly said a few weeks ago there was laxity last year, slippage in the quality of attention that showed up on game day in sluggish starts, penalties, turnovers, missed tackles and failures in the red zone. 11-2 was a good season but this group is capable of something better.
2. Groom a backup quarterback
Both Jake Rodrigues and Jeff Lockie have talent. They were productive quarterbacks in high school. Lockie was an all-league player in a top Northern California conference, the East Bay League, one that featured two highly-touted Division One prospects. Rodrigues was a four-star player and an Elite 11 finalist. One of them has to seize the job and reach the level of competence where he's ready to run the team in live game conditions with the outcome still in doubt. It's unrealistic to expect that Mariota will complete the entire season without missing a play, and there's a greater chance of him staying healthy if a backup is truly ready to take over when needed.
3. Set the tone for a new season: new leadership, new goals, refreshed attitude.
4. Sort out the rotations at wide receiver, defensive line and defensive back
5. Implement the new defensive scheme, simplified, with an emphasis on aggressiveness and fundamentals.
The Ducks aren't the biggest defense in the conference, but they can be athletic and attacking. There is plenty of talent, provided everybody understands what they're supposed to do and prepares properly. They'll have to be cohesive. They'll have to be able to depend on each other.
6. Outwork Stanford, Michigan State and UCLA.
There are tests throughout the season and every game is important, but these three are the most physical and talented teams Oregon faces next year. They are the standard against which their dreams will be measured. To have a successful year, one where they truly achieve their goals, they have to beat all three. They won't do so without paying the price, every single day.
In just three short weeks the Ducks take the first critical step in a journey toward becoming the team they were meant to be. They have the talent and facilities to be among the nation's elite, but the effort they make and the teaching provided by this coaching staff will determine their results.
A lot can happen in a season, good and bad. Championship teams have to be both good and lucky. But the Oregon players ought to take to heart something Jimmy Swain told me last week. "If I don't play as a true freshman, I want it to be because I wasn't physically ready, not because I wasn't ready mentally."
Every Oregon player has to make himself mentally ready for a new season. For every day of practice. If they don't win it all this year it had better not be because they didn't practice hard enough and didn't coach hard enough. Because that would be a titanic waste of potential.